In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, we are in the midst of a diocesan-wide reorganization entitled "Beacons of Light." After a couple of years of high-level situation-assessing, evaluating and planning, the 200 or so parishes were grouped into about 55 "families" of parishes; in a few cases, really large parishes remained on their own, but otherwise, the new families were made up of anywhere from two-to-seven parishes, headed by a pastor, and assisted by one or more vicars, or associates.
There are two basic elements to the plan: (1) organizing or reorganizing parishes well, as a prelude to the greater need, which is (2) evangelizing.
There is a fairly detailed road-map for every family of parish to follow, involving ongoing assessing of what the parishes, individually and as a family, are doing well or else need help doing; charting ways to bring things together, and at the end of five years, the "family" of parishes will be combined as a single legal entity.
This latter part of the plan has some folks, particularly up north in the more rural areas, upset. They are against combining parish legal structures; they want their individual parish to remain stand-alone as a legal entity, regardless of the fact that one priest will be pastor over this and several other individual parishes.
I will let them explain for themselves why this is important to them.
My job here it to explain why not combining the parishes legally is bad. It will be bad for the pastor; and that, in the end, will be bad for the people.
The short answer:
Because if you don't take these steps, especially combining parishes as a single legal entity, the result will be either a neglectful pastor, or else a pastor who is miserable and will want to go elsewhere, very possibly out of the priesthood.
Now, some further explanation.
The two reasons for reorganizing:
1) Not enough pastor-capable priests for the whole archdiocese.
2) Not enough people in the pews in many parts of the archdiocese.
Note that I said, "pastor-capable" priests. People say, look, we ordained seven new priests, why don't we have enough pastors? Just being ordained does not make you ready to be a pastor; our new priests will need several years experience before they become pastor; and trust me, you want that, too.
Even then, some of our priests who are good and holy, find that they aren't suited to be pastors. If I named names, you'd nod and agree: a good priest, but he'd make a terrible pastor.
Beyond the normal duties of a priest -- regarding Mass, confessions, sacraments, visiting the sick, teaching, assisting people preparing for sacraments, counseling people in difficulties, and the like -- are the special duties of a pastor, which involve planning, diplomacy, crisis-management, managing employees and financial responsibilities.
The pastor can and should have help in these matters, but it is fantasy to think he can delegate it all.
The person who writes a budget sets priorities. People can say, we must make X or Y a "priority," but if those who write the budget allot $1,000 a year for it, then they decided it won't be a priority.
Two things I've learned better this past year: if you don't plan before you act, you (and everyone) will be sorry. And, planning is work that takes time and focus. As with budgeting, the one who does the planning is the one who runs the parish. I don't mean the pastor should be the sole decider; I mean, he can't leave the room.
The pastor himself is responsible for overseeing the managing of parish money. Again, lots of people help, but none of this self-regulates. Who oversees the overseers? Unless he takes time, time, time, his oversight is a transparent pretense. Lack of oversight is how errors and overspending creep in, and worse, actual fraud.
So, of course, a priest can breeze through all this by turning over all the key decision-making to staff or especially powerful volunteers. But that priest is pastor in name only. What's more, the odds are high that the system will eventually break down for lack of dedicated leadership, after some period of meandering auto-pilot.
So why must parishes be combined into a single legal entity if they share a pastor?
Because a pastor has irreducible responsibilities to the legal entity he leads (which we call a "parish.") If he heads more than one parish, he must at times act as if he is two people. Four parishes? Four people, and so forth.
By the way, despite customary language, "parish" doesn't equate to "church building." In most people's experience in this country, "parish" means church; so when someone says, we're going to combine several parishes into one, it means, closing several beloved church buildings, to be turned into a B&B, or else demolished.
In fact, "parish" in church law refers to what otherwise we might call a corporation: a defined legal entity. A single parish can have more than one actively-used churches.
Here's what it seems some people want: they want the single pastor to administer the individual parishes as if they stand alone. What they don't realize is that they are asking a single priest to act as if he is two, three, four, seven, or more people. Impossible!
Every set of books must be kept separate; and reviewed.
If the parish staffs are kept separate, that greatly multiplies the pastor's duty as a supervisor.
If the finance and pastoral councils, and other organizations, are kept separate, the pastor multiplies the meetings he attends. But then, what else do we want him for, but to attend meetings?
All this would be bad enough, as long as everyone gets along and doesn't get suspicious of the other parishes in the "family." But what does a pastor -- who has a fiduciary responsibility to each parish -- do when the following happens:
Father Earnest meets with Parish A pastoral council. They tell him: "make Parish B pay more!" The next night, Father meets with Parish B pastoral council. They say, "make Parish A pay more!" If they won't work together, tell me how Father acts as the advocate of both, fairly, in that situation?
The Archdiocese, in setting on this path, adopted the principle of, "one pastor means one parish." That is, if a single priest was going to be pastor of several parishes for the foreseeable future (rather than a short-term thing), then the parishes must become a united legal entity. It won't work (except badly or miserably) any other way.
If you can't understand why forcing your pastor to administer separate parishes will make him miserable, try asking. It will. Or it will make him decide to be a figurehead, waiting for his next assignment. Or he will find unhealthy ways to deal with stress. Or he will quit the priesthood.
Update @ 3:08 pm.
Two more points. First, to address the two grave concerns people always have about combining parishes: money and keeping the church open.
There are very easy and very secure ways to ensure your money goes where you want it to go. Ask and I'll explain.
And if you're worried about your church closing, ask: are people showing up? Are people willing to pay for its upkeep? If yes to both, what's the worry? Some of my fellow priests are indeed stupid, but you have to be amazingly stupid to shut down a church that is well used and maintained.
Second, there's no denying we're in this soup because of a lot of bad decisions over recent decades. People always want to relitigate all that, understandably, but that doesn't deal with where we are. It's so tempting to blame it all on this or that thing (Vatican II! Abuse scandal! Not promoting marriage!), when it's a product of lots of things. In any case, I consider it a positive that the Archdiocese is turning, as a whole, toward evangelizing. Out of that will, I believe, come some important course corrections, but it takes time. Some of the course-correction may well be beyond what a pastor can do. And none of that discussion helps a pastor know how to manage things day to day in AD 2023.